Columbine Survivor Talks About the Ripple Effect of Community Trauma
Parkland Florida is the scene of the latest mass school shooting in the U.S. Hundreds of students and their families have been affected. These shootings have a ripple effect in a community that reaches far and wide. Austin Eubanks knows about that. He survived the Columbine shooting almost 20 years ago and has experienced first-hand that kind of trauma. For Eubanks it manifested in the form of more than a decade of substance abuse. Now sober, and helping others in recovery, he spoke with KNAU’s Justin Regan about the invisible injuries of a mass shooting and the connection between trauma and addiction.
Justin Regan: You’ve said that something that isn’t talked about enough is how trauma affects a community. Can you please elaborate?
Austin Eubanks: So what happens at first is there are a few hundred people who are directly affected by this trauma. But within a matter of days that number becomes thousands because of the way that their families have become traumatized and the people that they are close to. And if you look at it over the course of a decade the ripple effects are so profound. The numbers are in the tens of thousands because of the number of people who learn maladaptive coping mechanisms as a result of this trauma who perhaps turn to addiction, or struggle with depression. That depression might end in suicide and the way their families are now traumatized.
This instance is really everlasting and it will spiral because it has destabilized that community and the people affected so profoundly that they are going to be forever changed.
JR: And you’d say trauma can lead to addiction?
Eubanks: By way of the work I do today I run a long-term addiction treatment center that looks at addiction as a symptom of trauma. And we don’t believe you treat the addiction you treat the underlying issues that are causing the addiction.
And really what I see are 100% of the people who come into services have trauma that is either known or unknown that they have to get to the root of. I think there is a huge correlation between the rise in episodes of mass violence in our country and the rise in the addiction pandemic. Because we have a society that is just looking to medicate.
And even if it’s not substance abuse, they are doing it by way of disassociating with technology or social media or video games. Everything we used is designed to be addictive and those things are making us slightly less human. We have less empathy today then we did 20 years ago. And I think that’s why you see the rise in the mass shooting epidemic.
JR: Would you say there are a lot of people who might not be aware they are suffering from trauma?
Eubanks: Absolutely. Absolutely, and I think that is a problem across our society is people that aren’t willing to look at it, that aren’t willing to engage with it. And perhaps their life circumstances have not become bad enough where they are willing to look at it.
But I do think a significant portion of our population is suffering from trauma that is undiagnosed.
JR: How do we address this issue?
Eubanks: I think awareness is a big piece. And I think that starts in early childhood education. We have to normalize conversations around adverse childhood experiences. It’s not a coincidence that the common denominator amongst all these perpetrators of mass shootings is adverse childhood experiences that lead to a distorted world view and isolation and loneliness later in life. It’s also not a coincidence that almost 100% of people in treatment for substance abuse also have adverse childhood experiences that have led to that.
So we have to start normalizing those conversations in youth. To look at the way we are socializing children. And we have to evolve from the ground up to change our culture.